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on March 17, 2002
Evolution the Triumph of an Idea is a superbly written synthesis of the theory of evolution and its history. The author, Carl Zimmer, is a science journalist rather than a professional anthropologist, geologist or historian, which means that the book is eminently readable. It is also well researched with an extensive bibliography for each chapter. While it is clearly enough framed for the average reader without a background in the subject, it also presents enough new information to keep the serious student of the topic interested as well.
Although the volume was intended to accompany a PBS series on evolution, it would make an excellent source text for a high school or college survey course on the subject, as it covers the theory, the data supporting it, the newer thoughts on human evolution, the issues of ecology and conservation, and the character of science. It even touches upon the issue of God and science.
As an overview, Part 1 covers the autobiographical history of Darwin and the metamorphosis of his theory and the intellectual and emotional environment into which it was introduced. Part 2 introduces the actual theory and how the web of life has come to exist as it does. It also discusses the impact of human activity on the natural world and what the likely outcome will be if we persist in pursuing our present behavior with respect to the environment. Part 3 describes the coevolution of species and its impacts on relationships such as those in agriculture: natural plants, bioengineered plants, and insect and microbial pests. It also discusses the probable origin of some of the human diseases, the use and abuse of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs and AIDES. Part 4 contains some of the most pertinent information in that it points out the risks of dropping the subject of evolution from the core curricula of the nation's high schools.
In his defense of evolution, Zimmer points out that it is not simply a theory of biology that is at stake, but the scientific method itself. Some of my favorite quotes from Part 4 are: 1) "The scientific method does not claim that events can have only natural causes but that the only causes that we can understand scientifically are natural ones. As powerful as the scientific method may be, it must be mute about things beyond its scope. Supernatural forces are, by definition, above the laws of nature, and thus beyond the scope of science (p. 332)." And 2) "When microbiologists study an outbreak of resistant tuberculosis, they do not research the possibility that it is an act of God. When astrophysicists try to figure out the sequence of events by which a primordial cloud condensed into our solar system, they do not simply draw a big box between the hazy cloud and the well-formed planets and write inside it, `Here a miracle happened.' When meteorologists fail to predict the path of a hurricane, they do not claim that God's will pushed it off course (p. 333)." And finally 3) "Science cannot simply cede the unknown in nature to the divine. If it did, there would be no science at all. As University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne puts it, `If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labeling our ignorance `God'`(p. 333)."
As we get closer and closer to bringing about a total collapse of the environment of which we are an integral part, it behooves us to come to a clearer understanding of how our biosphere came to exist, how the various parts of it interrelate, and how our tinkering with it can have disastrous consequences. The teaching and learning of evolutionary theory is an important part of that understanding. This book helps further that goal.
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on March 4, 2017
Same as commentary for Zimmer's "...Fish with Fingers..." - Not a Biology teacher, I look for illustrations. Assuming the info is excellent, I gave this book to my daughter, a Marine Bio major in college.
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on September 27, 2001
Last May I was wandering through Down House, after 15 years, this time on the internet. There I found news about The Evolution Project and Zimmer's book. It was difficult to wait four months, but clearly worth it. Zimmer has done a masterful and original telling of the history, growth, and present applications of that most central and triumphant theory of biology. The writing is lucid with a rich selection of illustrations. The book is companion to the WGBH/NOVA seven-part television series broadcast on consecutive evenings from September 24 to 27. The book and series compliment each other well.
The book and series are only the beginning. Extensive resources for the Evolution Project are at: You will find information about the Evolution Teacher's Guide (free), Online Course for Teachers, Teaching Evolution Case Studies Video, Online Lessons for Students, Videos for Students, multimedia Evolution Library, and more.
The folks at WGBH/NOVA-Boston (1-800-949-8670) are very helpful with more information. It is an understatement to say that they and Zimmer have outdone themselves in creating these superb tools of science education. Enjoy the book and take advantage of the many associated resources.
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on April 13, 2003
I first checked Zimmer's book out of the library and now I need to buy a copy. It is an excellent presentation of the history of evolutionary thought that is easily read and understood by almost anyone. I realize that many creationist will be put off and spend some time pointing out supposed "flaws" in the book and evolutionary theory generally. However, despite their difficulties and the lamentable inability of many Americans to take evolution and the concepts of deep time seriously, the idea has triumphed within the science of biology (and in much of the non-American world.) No amount of attempted suppression or "equal time" demands will change that and such attempts only make the proponents of "intelligent design" look foolish. It is possible that they will win out politically for a while, but so did Lysenko in the former Soviet Union until his ideas about "vernalization," among others, were later shown to be totally false. There was a huge cost to agriculture in the USSR because of Lysenko's ideas and we would face a similar cost in molecular biology, medicine, geology and similar fields if the creationists should "win," based on the weak "evidence" they currently present.
If the "intelligent design" proponents want to discount biochemical, geological, anatomical, and even astronomical evidence, or discredit evolution by bringing up already discarded ideas and hoaxes (like Piltdown Man) as straw men, they are free to do so, but such perversity does not validate their argument.
This is not to say that evolutionary theory is static or should be free from criticism- far from it! New ideas within the evolutionary framework are being proposed all the time. Gould and Eldredge some years ago brought up the punctuated equilibrium idea, expanding it somewhat on similar ideas of Mayr. More recently Margulis has proposed a symbiotic evolutionary mechanism. There is an ongoing argument over evolutionary psychology (well reviewed by Zimmer in this book!) and more and more discoveries in the areas of molecular biology, behavior, paleontology, geology, ecology and systematics are constantly altering and changing the landscape of evolutionary theory.
This is in fact what distinguishes science from pseudo-science like "creationism" or "intelligent design." It is, despite individual scientist's egos and definite human flaws, a self-correcting system. If true empirical evidence for "intelligent design" should appear, eventually the scientific community would (perhaps after some time) accept it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for creationists, even in their new guise as practitioners of "intelligent design" theory. Science cannot deal with the supernatural explanations of the creationists, which are based on faith, because science has to be dedicated to the material world in order to function. Zimmer demonstrates these problems pretty graphically and I applaud for this magnificent effort!
I recommend this book highly to anyone with an open mind.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 27, 2010
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer

A thorough, well researched book that is broken out into four parts: Part One - Slow Victory: Darwin and the Rise of Darwinism, Part Two - Creation and Destruction, Part Three -Evolution's Dance, and Part Four - Humanity's Place in Evolution and: Evolution's Place In Humanity.


1. Accessible, well written book with an extensive bibliography.
2. Provides a lot more historical references than any other book I have read on the topic. It includes an excellent biography on the life of Darwin and how he came about the theory of evolution and his personal struggles to disclose his findings to the public.
3. Interesting history on the physics of how we determined the antiquity of Earth. Not to mention the order in which new life-forms appeared on Earth, and their actual dates in history.
4. A lot of interesting information regarding evolution: "A population of birds can evolve into its own species if it gets cut off from its neighbors". You will find out why.
5. The historical impact of germs...Napoleon found out the hard way.
6. Nothing like mutations to get evolution going. The genetic tool kit is explained in detail.
7. The origin of whales is one of the most interesting examples of evolution. And BTW a whale is no more a fish than a bat is a bird.
8. Everything you wanted to know about extinction and then some.
9. Interesting topics of the arms race between man versus bug, disease (great stuff on AIDS) and the evolution of sex.
10. My favorite chapters have to do with human evolution. Fascinating stuff and worth the price of the book (Kindle). Plenty of monkey business. It's the kind of stuff I go ape over.


1. Less technical than other books on this topic.
2. The advancements of science is such that it is outdated in certain parts: genetics, and major recent findings (Tiktaalik comes to mind). That's what I get for waiting for the Kindle version.
3. It's an investment of time, a lot is covered.
4. Too politically correct if you ask me. Let loose a little Mr. Zimmer.

In summary, a solid book on evolution that focuses on the history of the idea and how it succeeds to this day. I'm in awe of Darwin, science owes so much to his theory. Entire scientific fields are only possible with the understanding of evolution.

Recommendations: Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne, "The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins, "Your Inner Fish" by Neil B. Shubin, "What Evolution Is" by Ernst Mayr and "The Making of the Fittest" by Sean B. Carroll.
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on December 1, 2010
I have nothing bad to say about the content (text) of this book. The kindle version, however, has been stripped of all ilustrations, images and pictures. A real shame. If you expect to buy the kindle version as a more portable version of the real book, you will be sorry.
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on May 20, 2002
This book is just packed with the basics on evolution. I did not see the PBS series, but the book is just great. It is spelled out in laymen's for the non-scientist, it is easy to understand and read. I would not say this about most books or textbooks of this nature, but I sat down just to "glance" through it, and found myself 2 hours later still reading it. The theories of coevolution, origin of AIDS and even "where is God in all this" in contained within this book. It is great. I recommend it, even for the non-scientist!
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on January 2, 2009
I read this book on the suggestion of a close relative who knows that I have been reading evolutionary biology, geology,paleontology, anthropology and related books and scientific articles for 40 years. I came to this book having read almost all of S.J.Gould's popular writings ( and loved them all thoroughly ) as well as many books about the Cambrian Explosion, the Burgess Shale etc etc etc. My study is piled high ( as the pizza place says ) with books on all manner of subjects related to this topic.

Also, over the years I have delved deeply into the literature and science of human origins and way back in college enjoyed reading such light speculative books as "The Human Zoo" and "African Genesis".

Even with all this reading and study I did find some things of interest and several new ideas. One such idea is that the Cambrian Explosion was caused by the final completion of the "vertebrate toolkit". I'd not heard that before or at least it had not registered. There were a few other ideas that I could say were novel and interesting. Mostly, it was just boiler plate evolution 101. But I read every word of the book.

The early material on Darwin and his life and times was valuable. However, about midpoint in the book it started to become more speculative and even , at times, even humorous, as the author tossed out ideas clearly out of his field. He spoke of ice ages and the risks of global warming yet let us know that he thinks the current interglacial may end in two or three thousand years. I happen to agree with him on that due to detailed study and reading but just found it interesting that this statement was tossed with the rest of the salad.

He also stated at one point that there were some trillions of tons of unburned hydrocarbons on earth and if they were all burned it would take "hundreds of thousands of years" for the C02 levels to return to normal. Duh? The book isn't footnoted as such but sources for each chapter are given by chapter. No doubt that humans are just about the worst thing that ever happened to this planet's ecosphere but I was surprised to find such a wild eyed statement as this in a book about evolution.

Too much time was spent in the book on extinctions in my opinion. He could have talked about "punctuated equillibrium" but did not rather choosing to beat extinction into oblivion. Important yes but overdone in this book.

Likewise I found just about all the material on the creationist and intelligent design controversy misplaced in this book. He even used the words " liberal " and "conservative" at times. Important? yes. In a general book about evolution? No. A mention perhaps.

Having just finished books like "The Devil in Dover" and "Only a Theory" I am familiar in detail with the blood clotting ID argument. He retells this but in a far inferior manner , IMO, than in these other more general socio-political books. He did not mention cilia which I think is a far better debunker of all the ID garbage.

Yes, he's right on that one. The no nothings are on the march in this nation. Ignorance and superstition is , after all, the base line normal human condition, and many are working night and day to return us to the days of the middle or dark ages by their continuing to reject the most awesome TRUTH of biological evolution and deep time age of the earth. BUT, this book wastes a lot of paper going into detail on these political/social issues. There was a LOT more about the substantive science of evolution that the author could have addressed rather than spending so much time warning the reader about the fools among us.

I liked the cover more than the book and got the "convergent evolution" meaning of it right away. However, I don't recall the author ever explaining in detail what the cover teaches so powerfully. But, then again, he was busy talking about blood clotting and why it could have evolved after all etc etc etc.

As a rather well read reader of this book I'd give it a two. For a complete novice on the subject I'd give it a four only because the politics/beliefs are so distracting from the elegant description of the title of the book, namely , evolution.

I was disappointed in the book overall for my purposes. Unlike most books I read and enjoy there is nothing in this one to warrant my rereading it. I guess a lot of people like it a lot more than I's a successful seller after all AND , I must say, does serve a purpose of intro to the subject for people who want to know. And, though he,IMO, overdid it, I do agree that some mention of the danger of the creationist mobs who want to pull us all down to about the 6th or 7th century in terms of scientific discourse.

I do have this advice to creationists, young earthers, and fans of ID which I believe I heard somewhere else years ago. If you truly think the earth is only several thousand years old and if you truly can look at all the other vertebrates and not see YOURSELF then you should never , ever, step foot on an airliner or visit a medical clinic. The reason being that the same science that proves beyond any doubt whatsoever that biological evolution on a very old earth is FACT is the same science that underlies all medical science and the science and engineering that keeps a heavier than air craft in the air.

You all need to get horses, buggy whips, stop using electricity, and shun ALL modern science since you cannot extract evolution from the body of modern science without denying all of modern science in the process.
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on October 24, 2008
This book was extremely interesting. It presents the evidence for evolution clearly and concisely for anyone to understand. I especially appreciated the discussion on the evolution of insects, bacteria, and viruses. I think that these facts are important for everyone to know, as humans often ignorantly and dangerously influence the evolution of bacteria/viruses towards more resistant forms. By suppressing the teaching of evolution in schools, we are encouraging this behavior. I think that everyone should have a basic knowledge of evolution as it effects our everyday life. I recommend this book to anyone who values life.
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on October 4, 2006
I don't believe I need to emphasize what a wonderful book this is due to the plethora of positive reviews it has received. However, I would like to mention that in searching for a perfect introduction to evolution to recommend to friends, theists, and the simply uninformed (I included the misinformed by listing the theists), Zimmer's book by far outshines my prior favorites: What Evolution Is (Mayr's too technical), The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins is too blunt) and Evolution (Ridley's too advanced).

Zimmer treats evolution as the story of an idea, and describes it beautifully and candidly. I must admit, I was extremely caught by surprise by the authors' elegance never having read any of his other publications. However, that will shortly be remedied, because after the impression he's made on me with this book, his others will soon be invading my bookshelf.
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